When we lived just outside London, we took day trips into Kent all the time. Somehow, we never went to Leeds Castle. We have no idea why! Since we were back in the area, we made sure to reserve a day. And we did need the full day, there was tons to see.
Known as “the loveliest castle in the world,” Leeds Castle sits on 500 beautifully manicured acres. With a 900-year-old history, Leeds Castle is one of England’s must-see attractions. Luckily, it’s just an hour outside of London, so it makes the perfect day trip.
In this post we brief you on what to see and how to get the most from your day trip to Leeds Castle.
We are not sponsored by Leeds Castle. We just enjoyed our visit and thought you would too.
Brief History of Leeds Castle
The Doomesday Survey of 1086 is the first historical record of Esledes, the former name of Leeds Castle. Though the castle’s beginnings aren’t completely clear, historians believe the Manor of Esledes was built around 879 AD.
In 1119, Robert de Crevecoeur built the first stone castle on the land. However, besieged by King Stephen in 1139, very few features of the original stone castle remain today.
In 1278, Queen Eleanor of Castile bought the castle and lands. The Queen made a lot of changes that transformed Leeds Castle into an elegant royal residence. She also fortified the structure with high walls and towers. This helped the castle withstand its second siege in 1321 by Edward II.
For 300 years the castle stayed in royal ownership. Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Leeds Castle became part of the queen’s dower. Six queens owned Leeds Castle during this time.
The castle’s most famous owner was King Henry VIII. Though he visited Leeds Castle, he never lived there.
Leeds Castle went through many other owners and transformations through the centuries.
The last individual to own Leeds Castle was Lady Baillie. In 1974, Lady Baillie created a charity and trust to transfer the castle into upon her death. In 1975 and 1976 the gardens opened to the public and then the castle, respectively.
A Few Basics for Visiting Leeds Castle
- Located in the Kent countryside, Leeds Castle is 7 miles east of Maidstone, 1 hour from London, and only 30 minutes from the Channel Tunnel by car.
- Parking at Leeds Castle is free.
- By train, use Bearstead Station or Hollingbourne. From April to September, there is a coach service to the castle from Bearstead Station. Otherwise, you will need to use a taxi.
- Tickets include free entry for 12 months and access to the full grounds, including the gardens, maze, grotto, falconry display, dog collar museum, and most special events throughout the year.
- Instead of walking the enormous grounds, a train and a ferry are there to help you get around.
- The train, ferry, and the adventure golf course all require a small additional charge.
Explore Inside Leeds Castle
After a lengthy walk from the parking lot, we made our way through The Gatehouse Exhibition. Here they had a few artifacts and a ton of information on the castle’s history. It’s very easy to miss and most people did. Keep a look out for it on the right just as you enter the gatehouse.
Leaving the gatehouse, we found ourselves in the courtyard. Finding the actual entrance to the castle was a little confusing. Instead of entering through the main gate, we needed to enter via the oldest part of the castle, the wine cellar.
Beyond several large casks, a set of stone stairs led up and into the castle. Strategically placed to scare the wits out of anyone not paying attention, i.e., me, a knight stood watch from the top of the stairs.
Decorated with Middle Age weaponry and historical paintings, the hallways and rooms felt clean and somewhat modern compared to other castles dotted around Kent.
Lady Olive Baillie was the last private owner of Leeds Castle. She moved the castle under a charitable trust before her passing. Many of the rooms have been restored to her days at the castle.
In addition to opening Leeds Castle to the public, the castle is also a conference venue. Most famously, in 1978 the Middle East peace talks happened here. The room they used is on display, set up the way it was during those historical discussions.
Wander the Grounds
It’s easy to spend an entire day at Leeds Castle, making it a great day trip from London. In addition to exploring the stronghold, the grounds are extensive and have several attractions.
With 500 acres of gardens, we found it a great place to enjoy a bit of nature. From white fluffy swans to stern faced grey geese, the lakes and waterways were full of wildlife.
We were fine with walking, but there was the option to use the train or ferry for a small additional charge. The train ran from the main entrance up to the castle. The ferry ran from the castle to the maze and children’s play area.
Most castles in the UK have a hedge maze. We love them! The one at Leeds Castle was large enough for us to have a lot of fun getting lost.
Under the maze was the grotto. Grottos are a little more unusual, but not unheard of. The one at Leeds Castle was just a short walk through. Colored lights illuminated the tunnel and gave an eerie appearance to the stone carved creatures.
Something very unusual was the extensive Dog Collar Museum. Actually, it’s the largest public display of dog collars in Europe.
We were surprised we enjoyed this so much. Spanning over five centuries, it was fascinating to see the various styles and materials from different time periods and different countries.
Included with our ticket was the Falconry Display. They only do a couple of shows a day, so check the schedule when you enter the grounds.
It was a cool and somewhat windy day, so trainers only brought out three birds of prey: a kestrel, an owl, and a hawk. The trainers walked the aisles, allowing the birds to fly back and forth over our heads. Everyone got an up-close look at these beauties.
Even if you miss one of the shows, many of the birds are on display at the Birds of Prey Center, also included in the general admission.
If you prefer a more personal meet and greet with the birds, Leeds Castle offers several up-close experiences for an additional fee. Personally, I would love to do one of their Photography Days.
Where to Stay for Leeds Castle
If you are staying in London, then there’s no need to change hotels for a day trip. However, if you plan on doing more in Kent, like we did, here are a few convenient options.
- Leeds Castle – That’s right, you can actually stay at Leeds Castle. Well, not in the castle, but on the grounds. The Maiden Tower is on the Castle Island, but it’s often impossible to get one of the five rooms. The Stable Courtyard is just across the moat. With your stay you get complimentary access to the castle and grounds. If you want something quite a bit different, glamping in Medieval tents is also an option!
- The Maidens Chambers – Built in the 1400’s, the Maidens Chambers are full of old-world quirky character with uneven floors and original features. With only a 10-15 minute walk into the city, this hotel is great value. Its convenient location is next to Canterbury East Train Station, though surprisingly not noisy. Plus, it even has free parking for those with a car. Stairs are required, so keep that in mind.
- Cathedral Gate – Right in the heart of Canterbury, this hotel also dates to the 1400’s. Another hotel with wooden beams, slanted floors, tons of character, and lots of old stairs. However, you’ll be so close to the attractions you won’t need to do much walking. They don’t have free parking, but they do have an excellent breakfast included.
Where to Eat at Leeds Castle
Onsite at Leeds Castle is the Castle View Restaurant which serves breakfast and evening meals. For lunch, they have the Maze Cafe, Stable Yard Kiosks, and Whistle Stop Cafe.
As we were in a rush to catch the falconry display, we grabbed a quick bite at the Maze Cafe. Honestly, the chicken fingers were the only thing disappointing about our visit to Leeds Castle. Maybe try the Stable Yard instead.
However, we do have a great recommendation for after hours.
Less than a five-minute drive from Leeds Castle we found the 13th century gastro pub, The Dirty Habit. With a low beamed ceiling painted with “Duck or Grouse,” the pub had an old-world warm and friendly feel.
The chef impressed us as much as the atmosphere. The food was excellent, and the pub claimed 85% of their food was sourced within 25 miles. For instance, I had the Romney Marsh lamb. They also had a lot of gluten free and vegetarian options, which is a rarity in old pubs in small towns.
We hope you enjoy your visit to Leeds Castle as much as we did.
Here are a few other posts from around England you may be interested in.